Day 1: Hanoi and the International Language of Sideburns

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When we got to our hotel in Hanoi and prepared to venture out for the day, I asked Joe, “When does jet lag usually hit you?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “I feel fine.”

“Me too!”

We jumped into the air, high fived and skipped out into the streets of Hanoi.

We fell asleep at 10:30 and now It’s 4:30am and we’re both wide awake in our hotel room. How did we get here? I’ll start at the beginning.

We took bus 86 from Noi Bai airport into City Center and the old quarter. We were pretty proud of ourselves for figuring out the whole bus thing. I kept insisting that we were going native and Joe kept insisting that I not use the word native. The first, and maybe the only thing you notice about Hanoi when you first get here is the scooters. I thought Rome was a scooter town. Rome has a passing interest in scooters. Hanoi is obsessed. They are everywhere. They are legion, they don’t give a fuck about you, and they are trying to get somewhere. Everyone is honking their horn, but no one is upset. One of the first things we saw when we were crossing the Red River into Hanoi was a guy with about 200 crates of eggs strapped to the back of his bike. I mean I knew we were going to see some crazy shit but this seemed like the instantaneous representation of the craziest shit you could carry on a bike. Eggs. On top of the buildings are these shiny silver tanks that look both futuristic and old fashioned at the same time, like an airstream trailer. We think they’re water tanks but we’re not sure and haven’t asked.

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We got off the bus near the Hanoi opera house and immediately had to turn down an offer for a scooter taxi. We made our way down little side streets with trinket shops and people siting on these low plastic stools and eating food that smelled incredible. As it turns out, we’re here during National Day, September 2nd is Vietnam’s independence day so a lot of streets in the old quarter were closed off to everything except foot traffic and there were lots of people in the streets.  We walked around Ho Hoan Keim, a pretty lake with an island featuring the Temple of the Jade Mountain, a well named temple if I’ve ever heard one.

We got to the hotel and met Jack, probably not his real name, and he checked us in and showed us to our room. I got into a bit of an awkward situation in regards to tipping which prompted a google search. Tipping is not offensive here but it’s also not really expected. We showered and headed out to rent our bikes and find some food.

The company renting us the bikes is called Flamingo Travel and I’d been emailing with someone who spoke, or at least typed, pretty good english, but when we got to the place on the map, there was no one who spoke english. The place we went to was actually the garage and not the office and the only people there were three men who did not understand us, but who gamely called the office and found someone who did. Kind of.

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There was a point during this phone conversation that I almost lost hope. What you gotta understand is that Hanoi is loud, there’s engine noise, people talking, and oh god those horns so I would have had trouble understanding anyone let alone someone with a language barrier. Somehow we got through it. The person on the phone told me that we were to follow the men at the garage to the office. Great. We can do that. I handed the phone back to the guy (pictured) and he and another guy set about pulling some scooters around. Oh were these our bikes? Are we just supposed to take them now? No. We’re being instructed, via sign language, to get on the backs of these things. OK! Joe and I each got on the back of a scooter for a quick but intense ride to the office of Flamingo Travel. The scooter traffic is actually not as bad when you’re a part of it. You get swept along by the current in a way that makes it feel like reaching your destination is an inevitability.

Everything went fine at the office except that while we were in there, it started pouring rain. Hard rain. Heavy rain. The lady offered to lend us one poncho. I’m not sure but I think she was suggesting that we sit on each other’s shoulders and wear the long poncho like two kids trying to pass themselves off as an adult. We declined the poncho but as she was putting it back she found a second. Our walk back to the hotel was the only time it rained yesterday and it basically stopped as soon as we got back. We changed and went to get food.

We sat down at one of those places with the little plastic stools and ordered some sandwiches, bbq pork skewers and whatever these are. I think we thought were were getting wings.

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We got whole birds. This was all delicious. While we ate, Vietnam was playing the UAE in the bronze medal game of the Asia cup. This was a big deal. The entire block was watching the game and when Vietnam took a shot or got the ball in space, everyone went crazy. The only bummer was that our section of the block was on a slight delay so first the restaurants 50 feet away would go crazy and then our restaurant area would go crazy. This is the kind of thing that drives me nuts but no one here seemed to mind. The view from those stools is also fascinating. We saw, what we think was the ownership of a restaurant changing hands, a guy on a scooter knock over a table with his delivery bags, and another guy who had grown out his sideburns to a truly horrifying degree. They were probably 8 inches long and he stroked them absentmindedly. The rest of his head was shaved.

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Vietnam lost the game on penalties which was a damn shame since they were the better team. We went back to the hotel so I could change shoes and we swore up and down that we weren’t going to nap. Joe wanted to walk around aimlessly but I insisted we have some kind of destination. What we decided on, and I’m not exactly sure why, was mini golf. Specifically West Lake Mini Golf. The West Lake part is important because that was what we really wanted to see. It’s Hanoi’s largest lake and we’d had some good success with lake’s already. The mini golf was just to have an activity planned when we got there. The place was 4 miles away and we decided to walk so we could see the city. We definitely saw some shit on the way there.

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This kid.

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This independence day scooter parade. And we got to West Lake just in time to see this sunset.

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Somewhere around here we made a wrong turn which was good and bad. Good because it led us to Ho Chi Minh’s tomb which would have been beautiful and impressive at any time, but while we were there, a lightning storm was happening right behind it and, well, I’m just going to leave these here.

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Joe was lamenting how you couldn’t really capture lightning right before he snapped those beauties. Well done, Joe.

That was the end of the fun part of the walk. As I said, we’d made  a wrong turn which did lead us to the tomb but also added about three miles to the walk. The tomb park is big. And walking in Hanoi is not easy. The sidewalks are narrow, uneven and generally filled with scooters. They’re probably more accurately described as scooter parking lots and restaurant dining areas. You’re frequently having to step around or over something and crossing the streets is nervy and hectic no matter what the crosswalk situation is. By the time we got close to the mini golf place, we were pretty run down and the jet lag was starting to set in. Joe compared the walk to people that visit LA, stay in Venice and decide they’re going to walk to the Hollywood sign. “They’re the people you see at the Starbucks on Robertson looking like they got run over by a truck.”  That was us. We were exhausted, we’d been walking for three hours, and we weren’t really sure how we were getting back. To make matters worse, when we got near where the mini golf place was supposed to be, all there was was this endless wall with pictures of a futuristic development project and remedial construction behind it. Were we five years too early? Were the good reviews online fake? I mean it looked hopeless. Joe’s jet lag began to manifest itself as mild paranoia and kept telling me that mini golf was a lie. My jet lag took the form of the giggles and I couldn’t stop laughing at Joe and the state of things. But then there, in the distance, hope.

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A neon sign that seemed to say, “Fun here!”

We had arrived. It’s hard to describe how weird this place was. It was in the construction site, but someone had cleared enough land to install a large, maybe temporary, sports bar/beer garden. They were playing the gold medal match between Japan and Korea and there was absolutely no one there except the employees. Joe was immediately suspicious and wanted to leave.

“We came all this way,” I kept telling him, “let’s at lease look at the mini golf.”

“There is no mini golf.” he said.

We used their bathroom, a narrow WC with comically small urinals and vomit in one of the sinks, and ordered a beer and a water. I asked the bartender where the mini golf was and he gestured towards an opening in the back wall of the beer garden beyond which, only darkness was visible.

“Oh yeah,” Joe said, “Just go on back there. Sure yeah, keep going. There’s mini golf I swear.”

I went back there and looked. I couldn’t see a thing. Dirt roads and overgrown lots. No sign of mini golf. I had to admit that maybe Joe was on to something.

We finished our beer and water and got the hell out of there.

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Us at the end.

We hailed a cab and managed to indicate on the map where we needed to go. It took us 45 minutes to drive home.

During the ride Joe’s skepticism deepened. He went so far as to say that the employees at the beer garden “weren’t believable” and that the cat was the only chill person in there.

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(True)

When I confronted Joe about the fact that he was maybe being a little paranoid he replied,

“I don’t think I’m paranoid I think that’s just the way it is.”

Spoken like a true nut job.

When we got back to old quarter, the night was in full swing. All the traffic was gone and people were just out in the streets partying. There was music, there was food and we didn’t have the energy for any of it. We stopped at Circle K, bought two waters and a green tea and red bean Kit Kat, and went to bed. We’re still there now. But we gotta go. It’s breakfast time.

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